nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
March 3, 2007
The title character in Patrick Marber's bleak new drama, Howard Katz, is having a bad day. He wakes up on a park bench, gets mugged, and declares he wants to commit suicide—all within the play's first five minutes! Things only get darker from there as Marber explores the tortured psyche of a washed-up British talent agent on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Even though the author doesn't quite fulfill the play's potential, Howard Katz is well served by some smooth direction and powerful performances.
After starting on the park bench, Howard's story is told mostly in flashback as Marber shows us the path he took to get there. First, Howard loses a big client, Ricky, a rising reality TV star, to a rival agent who used to be his assistant. Next, Howard separates from his wife, Jess, whose "capacity for happiness can be really depressing," Howard tells her. This coming from a man for whom no day is complete unless he tells someone off. The unpredictably taciturn Howard's mood swings are legendary, and coming back to haunt him. Ricky sacks him because of them, and Howard's bosses at the agency quickly follow suit. Howard's brother, Bern, is so fed up with his selfish brother that shouting is the only way he knows to communicate with him. When Howard's father, Jo, dies shortly after their last big row, Howard is plunged into a spiritual crisis that lasts the rest of the show: Howard, a British Jew, feels so cut off from his heritage that he fears he has no soul.
Judging from the protagonist's shenanigans throughout the play, one might be inclined to agree with this self-assessment. Howard readily admits that he only reads contracts: "Anything else, the words just aren't dancing." When his father asks him to learn the Kaddish to read at his funeral service, Howard audibly groans, as if he can't be bothered. He tells Ricky how untalented he is without hesitation, and freely bellows at anyone who challenges or upsets him. But, Howard has the utmost respect for anyone who's good at their job, be it a mugger or God Himself.
If it sounds like Marber's protagonist might be too much to take for 90 intermissionless minutes, fear not. In Alfred Molina's more than capable hands, Howard becomes a charming, savagely funny whirling dervish. His galvanizing performance even makes Howard a sympathetic figure (talk about someone being good at their job). Molina is a natural on stage who makes his work look easy.
But, there's only so much that Molina can do with Howard Katz, which ends up feeling a little underdeveloped. From where I sit, there's a longer two-act play lurking inside Marber's current script. The depths of Howard's self-loathing and his spiritual crisis could be probed more deeply, as could the root of his marriage's discontent. The author drops just enough evocative tidbits to make the viewer want more in every department.
Director Doug Hughes covers up the play's shortcomings with a smooth and skillful hand. Howard Katz moves at breakneck speed, hurtling the protagonist from one agony to the next. The supporting cast is top-notch all around, with particularly noteworthy performances coming from stage veteran Alvin Epstein as Jo and Max Barry as Bern.
In its current incarnation, Howard Katz has more than enough going for it capture the audience's attention. Should Marber choose to take another look at his play, I suspect he would find plenty that merits further investigation. For now, though, the on-stage mastery of Molina and his castmates makes Howard Katz worthwhile.